A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Truth of Sentences, Take Two

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on November 13, 2008

I want to approach what I discussed in previous post from somewhat different perspective, in order to explain myself better.

In the linguistic community we become aware of all of different kind of things that can be done with language. Among other things, we can use language to speak about the world – through language we can claim that things are thus and so (“I had eggs for breakfast”), we can ask someone if things are thus and so (“Did I have eggs for breakfast?”), we can wonder aloud if things are thus and so (“I wonder if I have eggs for breakfast”), wonder what might have been if things were thus and so (“I wonder what would have been if I had eggs for breakfast.”).

Now, there is something clear here – while all those speech acts are different – they have something in common, they are about the same thing – about things in the world being thus and so, or in the specific case about me having eggs for breakfast. If I did have eggs for breakfast, that would mean that the answer to the question if I had eggs for breakfast is positive, that I was right in claiming that I had eggs for breakfast, that those who deny that I had eggs for breakfast are wrong, and so on…

We now (in the tradition of analytic thought) want to isolate this common thing, and on another side isolate another element to account for what is different in all those cases. If we do so, we can reduce the wealth of phenomena to few defining parts. Combine those parts, and you will be able to get to all those kinds of speech-acts.

The solution is pretty obvious – we will have claiming, asking, wondering-aloud, suggesting, denying and etc. on one side, and we will have the other element – call it proposition, statement or sentence, on another side. It seems also obvious that this other element, can’t be some actual state of affairs as the proposition might be “I had eggs for breakfast”, and maybe I didn’t have eggs for breakfast.

The moment we do this separation though, the need appears to specify the nature of the sentence/proposition/statement, and somehow “glue” it to the world. To me it is this that seems problematic – in the speech acts to which we pointed, we are simply claiming something about the world, asking something about the world – taken on this less-abstract level, there are no issues of connection between what is said and the world. It is when we take one aspect of those speech-acts, motivated by given reasoning, where we get into the issues of connecting this aspect to the world. Giving account of its meaning and truth-value.

So, I’m thinking that we are doing something wrong there. We are taking the notions of speech-acts (claiming something, asking something, denying something, etc…),  we take their aspects, take those aspects as self-subsistent, and then try to reconnect them (while keeping their assumed self-subsistence). The idea is then that we can’t take sentences and speak of them as being true or false, independent on any speech-act. It is speech-acts in which we are speaking about the world, and that only what is said about the world can be true or false (vs. merely what is said taken as abstract).

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17 Responses to “Truth of Sentences, Take Two”

  1. Colin Caret said

    buuuut…. it s true that 1+1=2 whether anyone says it or not.

  2. Hi Colin,

    I’m not sure what you are pointing to. What you said is true. It is also true that I had eggs for breakfast, whether anyone says that or not. I’m not denying that we can talk about something being true or false, but I’m doubting that there is a sense in speaking of truth of sentences/propositions/statements taken abstractly, unrelated to any speech-acts.

    I did jump over lot of possible related issues though, like the metaphysical/logical/mathematical claims, also the so called “propositional attitudes” which can be held and which are unrelated to speech-acts. Mostly I chose to ignore those things, because of brevity of the posts, but I was thinking of maybe relating to them in next posts.

    Anyway, sorry, not sure if I understood what you are pointing to. Maybe I’m way off the mark.

  3. Trey said

    Sentences do not have truth value. And what makes propositions true are truth makers – states of affairs in the world. So…what’s the problem?

  4. Trey said

    On the ‘glue’ issue. It is truth makers that make propositions true. That is, it IS states of affairs that make propositions true. We don’t have to ‘glue’ these to the world. There is a necessary relation between truth makers (states of affairs) and true propositions. If I had eggs for breakfast…then (from the metaphysical point of view) its impossible that the claim ‘I did not have eggs for breakfast’ be true. This is where the cats who propose ‘consensus’ theses are short sighted. It doesn’t matter what someone says or even if everyone says it. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the world, past, present, and future, says that I didn’t have eggs for breakfast this morning. If its true…its true not because of any sentence or thought or language or whatever. Its true because….I actually ate eggs for breakfast.

    On the sentence side…you need a theory of semantics. That is, how your meanings are going to correlate with the states in the world. This is a life long…and even longer..philosophical project. On the metaphysical side, you need to know how it is that states of affairs necessitate the truth of propositions. This again, a life long project. But the overall general scheme of things doesn’t seem to me to be much of a mystery.

    I am so unclear about what your actual question is…

  5. Trey said

    I presume its somewhere in the idea of speech acts that I am getting lost.

  6. theBLAH said

    It seems that there’s a stance of speech-acts-being-true-or-false but more importantly a stance of the interpretation-of-speech-acts having real-world correlation or not.

    The interpretation having a truth or falsity wouldn’t necessarily be limited to speech-acts, but to all acts of interpretation. If you think you saw a man by the window, but it turned out to be something else, is it false that you think you saw a man at the window, or is it only false to assume that your seeing a man at the window means there must necessarily be one? It seems this may be what you are asking.

    So when somebody says “i had eggs for breakfast” if we assume that this will only be said when actual eggs were had for breakfast, it is the interpretation which is up for truth/falsity rather than the actual speech act. If they had sang the lyrics “I had eggs for breakfast!” would we make the same interpretation?

    If we think “I had eggs for breakfast” is true, it means we assume you saying so has real-world-correlation (“glue”?) but then to say “i didn’t have eggs for breakfast” can we again decide whether or not we assume that must have the same real-world-correlation? When you say one of those sentences, we assume real-worldness, when you say both we can then take the new system (including both) as meaningless.

  7. Colin Caret said

    Okay, let me try to restate my case: the proposition that 1+1=2 is true, whether anyone has said it or not. Right? And isn’t that, in fact, a case of “speaking of truth of sentences/propositions/statements taken abstractly, unrelated to any speech-acts”?

  8. Enigman said

    Maybe it’s like how we say that a portrait is lifelike, even though it is only strictly the case that such painty stuff looks like someone to someone else. In our talk we often bracket the interpretive context. Similarly my chair is blue. In that ordinary sense, we can ascribe truth (falsely) to the Liar sentences?

  9. Enigman said

    (and the boxes in the top right-hand corner of my comments are filled with angry green circles)

  10. Colin,

    If possible, i would avoid discussing claims about logic/mathematics/metaphysics. I have position on those, but I think we might go onto some tangent. The thing is this – if we say that proposition/sentence/statement ‘John had eggs for breakfast’ is true, how is it different from saying that John had eggs for breakfast?

    We don’t mean the same thing with the former as with the later, right?

    I mean, if by former we mean nothing but the later, we might say that the talk about propositions/statements/sentences is just “manner of speech”, and that it doesn’t carry commitment to such entities as propositions/sentences/statements, because surely by claiming that John had his eggs, we aren’t committed to claiming that there are sentences/propositions/statements which have truth values?

    So, if we move now to 1+1=2, yes, I agree that 1+1=2 (or that it is true that 1+1=2) whether someone claimed or thought of it. But that is not same thing (at least I think so) as claiming that the proposition/sentence “1+1=2″ is true whether someone claimed it or not. The discussion in the post was about problematizing this move towards propositions/sentences and truth values as a genuine description of what is going on.

  11. Enigman said

    That is, I think you’re right, but do not see why we cannot ascribe truth to sentences in the ordinary way anyway. In fact, I think there will be problems doing anything else, much as there are problems with saying anything other than that my chair is blue, in view of what those words mean (which is determined by how we ordinarily use them).

    Suppose you have a vivid dream that you had eggs for breakfast and then told a telepathic intruder into your dream that you did. You use the sentence “I had eggs for breakfast” and you ascribe truth to it implicitly. What makes it fictionally true is that you had a dream about eating eggs for breakfast. All your talk in that dream, even to a telepathic intruder, has a fictional dimension. But the intruder knows that it is false that you really had eggs for breakfast – you haven’t even woken up yet!

    The relation of your words to your world, fictional and actual, is truthful and untruthful respectively (you are honest but mistaken), and how we say that is by saying that those words are, that sentence is true and false respectively. They are not (impossibly) true and false in some abstract way, but why should anyone think they were?

    A sentence is just a sentence, and it becomes true (to some degree, an in some way) when we put it in an interpretive context. The sentence tokens are just sounds and shapes instantiated, the sentence type can be true and it can be false. What is true or false is a sentence in a context, and it doesn’t matter which token (if any) is in the context; nor does it matter what else that type could be doing.

  12. Enigman said

    (and sentences do exist, e.g. the above ones, and if they are not true sometimes then what are we arguing about?)

  13. Enigman,

    “(and the boxes in the top right-hand corner of my comments are filled with angry green circles)”, haha, and I was wondering what were you saying in that other comment. I thought it is something along Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. BTW, hope you don’t mind the images, they are randomly created by wordpress, AFAIK. You can also register in wordpress and put your own image if you want.

    I agree with you that if in ordinary language we are used to speak about sentence being true or false, it is OK, even if literally we can’t talk about sentences being true. The problem is though, if we take this kind of use of those words, and go into building a theory of meaning and truth on base of it. I’m merely arguing against this.

    Sentences do exist, but we are not arguing about sentences or their truth, but we are arguing about what is being claimed or said. We are arguing if I had eggs for breakfast, if sentences can have truth values, etc… The fact that we are using language to communicate, given that it gives us ability to discuss those things, I think should get out of the picture. Again, given that the language gives us means of discussing if I had eggs for breakfast, the discussion is about me having eggs for breakfast or not – not about truth of sentences.

    You say: “A sentence is just a sentence, and it becomes true (to some degree, an in some way) when we put it in an interpretive context. The sentence tokens are just sounds and shapes instantiated, the sentence type can be true and it can be false. What is true or false is a sentence in a context, and it doesn’t matter which token (if any) is in the context; nor does it matter what else that type could be doing.”

    Sure, the same sentence can be pronounced as part of claiming different things. And while I agree with that, that is not why I say that the sentences don’t have truth values. One could speak of propositions for example, where the proposition would be the meaning of the sentence in that particular context. Still, I think that theoretically that is move in wrong direction. Going from simple talking about the world, to abstracting parts of that talking about the world, and then trying to “glue” them back.

    “(and sentences do exist, e.g. the above ones, and if they are not true sometimes then what are we arguing about?)”

    We are talking about issue at hand, and not sentences. We can talk about if I had eggs for breakfast or not, or if there is such thing as truth-value of sentences. That we are using language to communicate, and that in that communication we can abstractly isolate such things as sentences, doesn’t mean that we are talking about the sentences. Given that we can discuss things using language, I don’t see a reason why we should think that to any discussion there is a discussion of the truth of certain sentence, or truth of certain proposition. It seems to me – we are simply discussing issue at hand.

  14. TheBlah,

    Yes, I agree that talk about something being true or not, can appear disconnected to speech acts, and can also appear in the realms of perception, belief, knowledge, etc… I merely concentrated on speech-acts in the context of discussion of the issue of the idea that sentences/propositions have truth values.

    However, I’m not sure that the interpretation has lot to do with the issue at hand. I mean, sure, depending on what we see one as claiming, we will be inclined to take him as being right or wrong (or not understanding him at all :)) . But, this is more about the case where this problematic is removed – given that one is claiming that he had eggs for breakfast abstracts from any possibility of misunderstanding, etc.., just given that one claims that, I don’t see reason to speak of sentences or propositions being true or false, but simply that it is true or false that he had eggs for breakfast.

  15. Trey,

    You say: “On the sentence side…you need a theory of semantics. That is, how your meanings are going to correlate with the states in the world. This is a life long…and even longer..philosophical project. On the metaphysical side, you need to know how it is that states of affairs necessitate the truth of propositions. This again, a life long project. But the overall general scheme of things doesn’t seem to me to be much of a mystery.”

    Yeah, that is the gluing that I’m talking about. The idea itself I agree is not much of a mystery, but the gluing is. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t take “life long, and even longer” projects to understand it. I think, on other side that alternative idea, where we remove the talk about truth of sentences and propositions is possible where the issues of gluing disappear. I will try to discuss more details of this positive account in separate post.

  16. Enigman said

    Thanks, we seem to agree on most things here, and I’m a bit off topic I see. Re your:
    I don’t see a reason why we should think that to any discussion there is a discussion of the truth of certain sentence, or truth of certain proposition. It seems to me – we are simply discussing issue at hand.
    There is for some discussions, e.g. philosophy of language, but also to any deep discussion of anything I think. What we can say about something is limited by language, by our sentences. Our sentences are not true or false but to some extent true, in certain ways. We communicate by getting closer to the truth, which is by producing better sentences. It can seem like truth is an ideal sentence, which would be wrong, I think; but sentences aim to be, to a greater extent, true. One of the jobs of philosophy may be to notice when the language is getting in the way of our discussing the issue at hand.

  17. Clark said

    An other way to consider it is to ask if differing kinds of speech acts (like questioning) are all parasitic on the speech act of asserting. My sense is that most discussion of sentences takes the assertion as fundamental. While one could talk about what all speech acts have in common I think it might be useful to analyze that in more depth.

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